Fatigued and frustrated, bamboozled by drop shots and distracted by a malfunctioning speaker, Andy Murray again ended his US Open campaign prematurely.
Struggling to maintain his composure when faced with a tactical masterclass from Kei Nishikori, Murray was upset 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 by the No 6 seed in a four-hour epic.
Nishikori squeezed out a reflex volley to break for 6-5 in the decider, and served it out to make this the first Grand Slam of 2016 that will not feature the 29-year-old Scot in the final.
Murray had been left fuming early in the fourth set when he had control at break point in a rally, but umpire Marija Cicak had called a let owing to a loud clang from what was later revealed to be an ‘audio processor’.
An even keel has been key to Murray’s brilliant summer run, but there were times when his own mental processor blew against a courageous and skilful opponent.
Seven games were lost after a protracted argument with referee Wayne McEwen over the speaker issue, and ultimately they could not be recovered.
Murray was far more sanguine afterwards, despite missing the chance to supplement his Wimbledon and Olympic triumphs.
‘I was in a good position, up and a set and a break and chances at the beginning of the fourth set,’ said Murray, who now heads home for next week’s Davis Cup semi-final versus Argentina.
‘I could have won the match but I have also won some over the last few months I should have lost, like at the Olympics.
‘I tried my best. I fought as hard as I could with what I had today. I didn’t let anyone down. I pushed myself as hard as I could over the last few months, and I’m very proud of how I have done.
‘If someone had offered me the summer that I have had before Wimbledon, I probably would have signed for that.’
MURRAY vs NISHIKORI
2011 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Shanghai MURRAY
2012 Australian Open MURRAY
2013 Brisbane MURRAY
2014 ATP World Tour Finals NISHIKORI
2015 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Madrid MURRAY
2015 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Canada MURRAY
2016 David Cup first round MURRAY
2016 Rio Olympic Games MURRAY
2016 US Open NISHIKORI
He did not blame the result on the speaker incident, nor the toll that Rio may have taken, nor the roof being closed after only the briefest of showers.
Murray had won 16 of his last 18 matches that had gone to five sets, with the only two defeats in that sequence coming against Novak Djokovic.
But this being the end of a long summer campaign made him more vulnerable, especially against 2014 finalist Nishikori in the inspired form he showed after the first hour.
This was Murray’s first defeat with Ivan Lendl in attendance since their reunion. Curiously, since winning the title in 2012, the US Open has become his least productive Slam.
Just when it looked as though Murray was getting back into the decider from 0-2, Nishikori — his forehand lethal at times, wayward at others — found his range again.
He broke for 3-2 only for the world No 2’s bloody-minded determination to kick in at 2-4 0-40, with Murray fighting back to level despite Nishikori constantly pressuring his second serve.
There was no early sign of the trouble to come. Murray made only four unforced errors while the Japanese was spraying the ball everywhere.
When Murray broke for 3-2 in the second, he threatened to repeat his demolition of Grigor Dimitrov, only for Nishikori to intelligently change his game to disrupt the Scot’s serene progress.
He began to approach the net far more, and to repeatedly play the drop shot, which he uses with impeccable disguise.
That change of tactics brought the immediate dividend of a break back, and the momentum shift was added to in the next game by the roof being closed.
The Arthur Ashe crowd, which has been fairly starved of competitive matches, warmed to the idea of a close contest.
Nishikori came alive after the 15-minute hiatus, during which both players were able to speak to their coaches.
The picture was further complicated by both men having their rackets restrung, the tension of the strings proving a perplexing matter when the atmosphere changes and the air becomes conditioned.
Murray had previously mentioned that the loud hum of the crowd in such an environment makes it difficult to hear the ball off the racket, an aid for both players in judging the ball’s speed and spin.
He was struggling to keep a lid on his frustration, and a striking facet was how often Nishikori was winning any rally that extended beyond nine strokes.
The tug of war continued in the third set with Murray breaking for 4-3, then dropping his serve and then breaking again for 5-4, with the decisive hold only coming when he needed to close it out.
The umpiring controversy came when he had a break point in the first game of the fourth set. Murray was in charge of the point at 30-40 when Cicak called a let, having allowed played to continue during crowd noise in the first set.
The argument with McEwen at the changeover at 1-2 seemed to disrupt the Scot and he was broken in the next game, leading to a decider.
‘She stopped the point, and I was just curious why that was, and that was it,’ said Murray.
He will be back home when the title is decided on Sunday, most likely in Djokovic’s direction.